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June 2023

Have We Become Sears?


By The Rev. Dr. Graham Standish, PhD, MDiv, MSW, MA, Executive Director

This article was first published in Presbyterian Outlook.


I wish I saved the Facebook post. It was a long lament about Presbyterian decline: how perhaps God’s okay with it; how God’s winnowing us so other churches can thrive; how we pastors should accept our collective role as hospice chaplains for dying churches.

Having witnessed a 40-year decline from 4 million to just over 1 million during my time as a Presbyterian, I’ve spent my career pushing back against it.

On the hard days, I wonder, if we’ve become an ecclesiastical version of Sears. From the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, Sears dominated the U.S. (just as Presbyterians did). They sold everything from clothes, tools, washing machines, dishwashers and more.

Then Walmart cut into their dominance, followed by Home Depot. Finally, Amazon sealed their fate. Sears stopped innovating and adapting, trying instead to hold onto what was rather than adapting to the reality of what is.

Having grown both churches and non-profits, I know decline isn’t inevitable, but it requires adopting an entrepreneurial mindset and practices. Here are some that have helped me:

Entrepreneurs see obstacles as opportunities. I have several mantras I follow consistently: “Every obstacle is also an opportunity.” “Look for what’s right not what’s wrong.” “Focus on what’s possible not what’s impossible.” Ultimately, entrepreneurs see problems as potential paths for creating new possibilities.

For example, when faced with the reality that Sunday morning sports meant parents had to choose between athletics and confirmation classes (i.e., not choosing us), my church quit focusing on the problem and embraced an opportunity to revamp our confirmation program. Based on the Great Command, we created a unique curriculum with three emphases — loving God, loving others, loving ourselves.

We offered loving others mission activities at times other than Sunday morning — church clean up, meals for a homeless shelter, visiting nursing home residents, support for a new church development and more. We trained them in loving self by teaching personal prayer, Bible-reading, discernment and responsible living that prepared them for life beyond the church. We offered loving God Sunday classes that integrated film, music, videos and more to teach lessons about who and where God is. We turned a challenging problem into a creative program.

Entrepreneurs are eager to learn what they don’t know, even if it means learning from those they feel competitive with. In the 1980s, the U.S. car industry was decimated by high-quality Japanese cars. In the 1990s, they started recovering. How? By visiting Japanese car factories, studying their processes, and then applying lessons learned to transform themselves.

Our church started live-streaming services in 2010. We had no idea what we were doing when we bought the equipment for it in 2009. Having nowhere to turn to in the denomination, we studied what non-denominational churches were doing.

Afterward, I felt called to talk with a seminary president about the need to train students to integrate technology into the church, including streaming, if we’re to adapt to a changing culture. He listened politely and asked how much it might cost ($30,000 to retrofit the chapel?) and who could teach it (any of their tech persons — just get a professor to oversee it). Nothing came of that conversation, and I wonder how different the pandemic might have been for seminary graduates trained in live streaming.

My successor and a good friend at the church I led for 22 years, David Paul, entrepreneurially built on our existing streaming platform during the pandemic, leading them to add more cameras and a recording studio. He and the worship team saw the pandemic as an opportunity, allowing them to thrive during the pandemic and grow an online congregation.

Entrepreneurs resist their own urge to say, “This is how I’ve always done it.” Pastors frequently lament the seven words of a dying church: “We’ve never done it this way before.” Yet we don’t recognize it when we say it ourselves: “I can’t do that … that’s what non-denominationals do,” or “I’ve always preached/worked/led this way.” So, we safely stay in our pastoral silos, failing to learn from other disciplines and fields.

The irony is that as “adaptive leadership” has become a hot term, we generally apply it to others and not ourselves. We complain that they won’t change while we cling to increasingly ineffective manuscript preaching; lectionary preaching; formal, wordy liturgies; worn-out leadership models; and so much more. Entrepreneurial pastoring boldly examines what’s ineffective in us and adapts to what is effective.

Entrepreneurs know that true creativity uniquely integrates others’ ideas: True creativity doesn’t develop out of nowhere. Creative geniuses take seemingly disparate ideas and find ways to uniquely integrate them. It’s how contemporary worship started. In the 1960s, Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, recognized the power of the growing rock movement. So, they infused rock music with Christian lyrics, modeled their worship services on rock concerts, and launched the contemporary Christian movement.

In the early 2000s, our church recognized that younger generations were becoming indifferent to our style of worship. So, over the next ten years, we had teams visit churches that were successfully reaching them — evangelical, emergent, Taizé and more. Each time we brought back ideas that slowly transformed us. We created a thriving, unique, growing worship service that integrated traditional, contemporary, Taizé, contemplative, jazz, blues, Celtic, evangelical, charismatic, sacramental and even self-designed elements. We didn’t become contemporary nor were we just blended. We developed our own style, even writing our own songs that integrated R&B, Latin and Celtic styles. I wrote about how to do this in my 2010 book, In God’s Presence.

Entrepreneurs always look for opportunities, want to grow, resist their own complacency, and embrace creativity. Maybe we’ve become irredeemably Sears, but I hope not.

July 2020

Is healing at the core of our congregations?

by Graham Standish


Visit Graham's website and blog in Presbyterians Today. (This article was first published in Presbyterians Today.)


As a seminary student I heard a constant refrain from our professors: Jesus came to preach and teach. It was the pretext underlying our whole seminary education as they trained us to preach and teach.


It made sense to me. Isn’t that what pastors do, spending our weeks preparing to preach on Sundays? Isn’t our mandate to offer Bible studies, small groups and classes to nurture faith? We might lead boards and committees and offer pastoral care to those in need and in crisis, but our primary role is to preach and to teach.


Something happened early in my ministry to change my perspective. I was an associate pastor at the time, and a youth group member spoke with me about his recent experience. He prefaced it with, “Graham, do you believe in healing prayer?” I told him that I wasn’t sure. He proceeded to tell me about something amazing that had happened over the previous few weeks. His girlfriend, a champion high school swimmer, was set to race in the state finals — her swan song for competitive swimming. That week she tore her hamstring and her doctor told her it would be impossible to race. She was devastated.


Listening to her despair, he told her that he had been reading in the Bible how Jesus healed someone who couldn’t walk. He said that perhaps they could pray for her healing. They agreed. Not knowing how to actually pray for healing, he improvised. He stretched out his hand, asking Jesus to let it be a channel for healing. He then placed it on her leg as they continued to pray. Nothing happened. Oh well, it was worth trying.


The next morning, though, something did happen. She got up, took a shower, and while drying off realized that all her pain was gone. Her leg had been healed. She ended up competing in the state finals and won.


Whoa! What do I do with that story? It hasn’t been the only one I’ve heard like it. Over the ensuing months others told me of their healing experiences. It was disorienting. We Presbyterians are rational people who don’t easily succumb to tales of prayer and miraculous healings. So I did what I always do in cases of cognitive dissonance — I decided to learn more about it.


Healing prayer


I discovered a remarkable book by John Wilkinson, The Bible and Healing. He started by researching healing in the gospels. He found that 25% of the stories in Matthew’s gospel dealt with healing, while in Mark it was 50%, Luke 34%, and John 36%. Further, 75% of Jesus’ teachings in Matthew dealt with healing, 50% in Mark, 66% in Luke and 64% in John.


This completely changed how I saw the church. I was awakening to the fact that Jesus came primarily to heal, and that preaching and teaching were part of that healing. He not only healed people physically. He healed the breach between us and God that formed whenever we turned possessions, law, rituals, traditions, and even beliefs, into false gods.


Salvation as healing


Subsequent research led me to study the world “salvation,” in both its Latin and Greek origins. When we think of “salvation,” we typically think of it as Jesus rescuing us from sin. There’s more there, though. The Latin root, salvus (the root of both “save” and “salve”), as well as the Greek word for it, sozo, mean both “to rescue” and “to heal.”


It led me to question the typical translation of James 5:15, where James advises those who are sick to call for the elders to pray over them. The NRSV says that the “prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.” Does that make sense? You’re sick. You call on the elders to pray for you. Are you really focused on their prayer saving you? Doesn’t it make more sense to translate sozo as the “prayer of faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will raise them up”?


Healthy congregations are healing congregations


The radical change in my understanding of church was my realization that the healthiest congregations are ones who see themselves as healing communities. The early church saw themselves as places of healing. Why else would James suggest that the sick person call on the elders to pray?


What would it take to transform our congregations into places of healing? I believe it starts with reconceiving everything we do as a church. Do we see ourselves as helping heal the separation most of us experience with God, making it hard to pray, grow, and live lives the way God calls us to? Do we see ourselves as helping to heal the pain of living in a divided, dysfunctional nation and world? Do we see ourselves as teaching people how to heal the conflict they experience in their lives? Do we see ourselves as being communities that offer compassionate healing for those with mental issues? Are we prayerful communities where people with physical, emotional, and relational wounds and scars can find healing love, support, and prayers?


In my previous church these questions led to an extensive healing ministry that we developed slowly over a five-year period. It began with me preaching and teaching about healing, while also offering personal healing prayers with suffering members. We then formed a small group that studied healing and faith. We brought in speakers to talk about their own healing experiences, which we followed up by offering healing prayer as part of communion once-a-month. Then we created a healing prayer team of people trained to pray with people in their homes as they struggled with ailments. They were also available every Sunday after worship to pray with people one-on-one. And I continued to preach and teach in ways that either explicitly or subtly taught about healing spiritually, personally, and relationally.


At the center of all of this is a simple question: Is healing at the center of our ministry and mission?


The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, is executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting in Sewickley, PA, and directs their Caring for Clergy and Congregations program. He is the author of seven books on spirituality and congregational transformation, with a new one, “…And the Church Actually Changed” due in September (



June 2020

Finding Meaning in Times of Crisis

by Graham Standish


Visit Graham's website and blog in Presbyterians Today. (This article was first published in Presbyterians Today.)


Throughout the coronavirus pandemic I’ve been thinking a lot about Victor Frankl. It’s like he’s the answer to everything pastors especially are struggling with right now. I don’t know if you know who he is, or remember who he was, but he wrote a seminal book titled Man’s Search for Meaning in the 1950s that helped people discover transcendence even in the midst of suffering and tragedy.

Frankl had a tremendous influence on me as a teen, especially since I was an aspiring therapist. A Jewish, Viennese psychiatrist in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Frankl spent three years in four different Nazi concentration camps, including the infamous Auschwitz. Frankl survived the camps, but tragically his mother, father, brother, and wife did not. What’s remarkable about him is that he emerged from the camps with a profound sense of faith, hope, and love despite experiencing such horrors and anguish.

How was he able to be so positive after so much suffering and death? In his writings and teachings he often reflected on this question. He knew that much of surviving had to do with happenstance—he was never sent to gas chambers, shot, or beaten to death like so many others had been. Still, he noticed that survivors often shared a trait: they discovered a sense of meaning and purpose, no matter how terrible and degrading the situation was. They found meaning and purpose in helping each other survive physically, keeping others’ spirits lifted, searching for the good even in times of suffering, and believing that they had a purpose once freed to help heal those who had suffered. It was during his captivity that he came up with the framework for a new kind of therapy, logotherapy, that influences many therapists to this day.

A central story in his book was an event that happened after a day spent digging a pit in the frozen ground—labor meant to degrade and dehumanize them because it had no purpose other than imposed suffering. As they silently walked back to the barracks, a man stopped and said, “Look at the sunset!” For five minutes they all stared in awe at the most beautiful sunset they had ever seen.

Frankl said that this one moment of meaning changed how everyone experienced their situation. Suddenly it became tolerable again, if only for a little while. His life became a search for those moments. Frankl later taught that we find meaning in those moments because humility and transcendence coalesce to provide a sense of meaning in what would otherwise seem meaningless.

Helping people piece life back together after the war, he noticed how many no longer felt a sense of meaning. He said, “People have enough to live, but nothing to live for; they have means, but no meaning.” He believed we face a choice in any situation: do we let the situation define us or do we define ourselves by adopting an attitude of openness to something more. He called this a “will to meaning”—a sense that even in darkness we can find light, and that light can sustain us until out situation becomes better.

Across the country church leaders and pastors are having a crisis of meaning during this pandemic. And this crisis extends way beyond what previous crises (9/11, two wars, mass shootings, the Great Recession, and the present Great Unravelling of the country politically) presented. What makes this crisis worse is that it impacts all areas of church life and ministry:

  • Organizationally, by disrupting routines and schedules.

  • Vocationally, by causing us to question what our role is and what people expect of us?

  • Technologically, by forcing us to learn how to record, stream, Zoom, post and more, while dealing with church members who resist and just want to go back to how it was.

  • Communally, by stripping away the old ways and forcing us to find new ways to stay connected.

  • Emotionally, by dredging up feelings of helplessness, frustration, anger, sadness, confusion, and more that we don’t know what to do with.

  • Relationally, by forcing us to stay home too much, spend time with others too little, all while balancing parenting, tasks, and obligations.

  • Physically, by putting us in situations where it’s easy to eat and drink too much, exercise too little, overwork, under-rest, and generally not take care of ourselves.

  • Spiritually, by making us either feel blah or abandoned in our relationship with God, without a sense of who can understand our struggles.


The result is that many pastors are ending up with a crisis of meaning. We don’t know what our role is anymore because much of what we used to do we’re now unable to do, and we struggle to adapt. We signed up for a very different kind of ministry than what we’re being asked to offer now.

The coronavirus crisis may be changing the means by which we do ministry and church, but it hasn’t changed the meaning behind what we do. The meaning we derive from church is still there, even if the means by which we do it has changed: serving God, opening people to God’s Spirit, helping people find healing for their lives, and offering faith, hope, and love.

The struggle for many of us is that we think that the way we did something was what provided the sense of meaning and purpose. What really provides a sense of meaning and purpose is what we offer in ministry and in life, regardless of the means by which we do it. Like Frankl, we can discover beauty, wonders, light, life, love, and more if we’re willing to look for it, especially as we help others listen for God’s guidance in the midst of pandemic.

The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, is executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting in Sewickley, PA, and directs their Caring for Clergy and Congregations program. He is the author of eight books on spirituality and congregational transformation, including a new one, “… And the Church Actually Changed” due in September (



January 2020

Are We Too Religious to Be Spiritual?
by Graham Standish


Visit Graham's website and blog in Presbyterians Today. (This article was first published in Presbyterians Today.)


I’m a little bit obsessed with the phrase “spiritual but not religious.” I have been ever since I first said it about myself when I was in college: “Nah … I don’t go to church. I’m spiritual but not religious.”

I still said this about myself even when I returned to church in my mid-20s after a nine-year hiatus to explore “the spiritual.” I said it about myself while I was in seminary as the seminary president chastised me for not going regularly to the daily chapel services. I told him that I had a hard time feeling deeply spiritual in those services because they felt too religious. He told me that going to the services were part of my obligation as a student. Floosh! My comment apparently whizzed by him. I wasn’t seeking obligations. I was seeking an experience of God. Why is obligation more important than experience?

I tussled with finding “the spiritual” as an associate pastor, although by then I was able to create small groups for those also seeking a deeper spirituality within the church. I struggled with it while working on my Ph.D. in spiritual formation as I studied the Christian spiritual tradition. Even after finishing my degree and becoming pastor of a church for over 22 years, I kept wondering whether or not we can ever overcome the basic problem that those who are “spiritual but not religious” criticize the church for.

Can you hear their critique?

We often don’t hear it because we’re too busy critiquing them. We say they’re spiritually lazy. That they’re just immature and will return when they get older (they’re not). That they’re too self-consumed and worship themselves. There’s some truth to all of it, but knowing that just causes us to become blind to our own problem.

Do we hear what they’re saying?

What’s their critique? It’s a simple one. They’re telling us that we’re “religious but not spiritual.” Could they be right? Are we too immersed in our particular religious traditions and theological thinking to fully appreciate how much we’ve diminished the spiritual in our churches? Here’s a way to tell. In your church, how often have you heard visitors and new members who weren’t already Presbyterian remark, “I came here because I really, really wanted to learn Presbyterian theology.” How often have they said, “I came here because I particularly like Presbyterian liturgy.” Maybe some, but they aren’t the ones who’ve walked away.

How many people do you know who’ve said, “I find God more on a walk with my dog than I do in church.” Or, “I just don’t find God when I’m in church.”

What can we learn from them?
How can we address their legitimate concerns? If people aren’t experiencing God in our churches, what are we really offering?

How can we become spiritual AND religious?

I’ve spent my career as a pastor obsessed with creating a church that’s both spiritual AND religious. I’ve written about it in so many books and articles. So have SO many others. And it frustrates me that we’re still stuck being “religious but not spiritual.”


So here are some thoughts you can discuss amongst yourselves to potentially help our churches reach out to the spiritual but not religious, and in the process possibly rejuvenate ourselves:

If we were to ask visitors where they experienced God the most in worship, what would their answer be?

If they don’t experience God, how could we change to help them experience God?

What would it take to change in ways that help them experience God?

Why do we persist to do things that turn off those who've walked away, such as:


Reading stodgy prayers from a book written in a formal style suggesting that God only listens to those who speak the right way? Why not just say prayers in a more sincere, normal voice?

Reading our sermons, which then are really written to be read instead of said? I have a simple thought: pretend your sermon is you causally talking to a friend over dinner, and only use language and sentences that would make sense one-on-one. And would you read your conversation from a manuscript?

Using odd “preaching voices” that feel out of tune and of a bygone time? Use your own voice and speak how you would want to be spoken to.

Persisting in loading services with words, words, and more words when trying to reach generations that are more musical, visual, and experiential? Let go of printed, responsive calls to worship; reduce printed prayers; and simplify the service by adding more times of silence and music. The music doesn’t have to be contemporary, just varied.

Why won’t we ask those who’ve walked away what might get them to walk back, AND then try new things? Have members talk to their children and grandchildren, neighbors and friends, and start generating ideas on how to become a place people who’ve walked away from might walk back towards.

Can those who are the problem become the solution?

I do know what prevents us from all of this. We’ve already lost younger generations because we haven’t changed, and we fear the wrath of older generations if we do. So make that older generation part of the solution. Lead them to realize that it’s their responsibility to create a church for others, not themselves. Get them to investigate and discuss the problem, and ask them to lead the changes. It’s not hard. It simply means getting them to stop criticizing those who’ve left and start listening to them.



A pastor for 31 years, the Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, is now executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting, where he also runs their Caring for Clergy and Congregations Program. He is the author of 7 books on spirituality and congregational transformation, with a new one, “…And the Church Actually Changed,” due in Spring 2020 (


December 2019

The Smallest Things Can Make the Biggest Difference
by Graham Standish


Visit Graham's website and blog in Presbyterians Today. (This article was first published in Presbyterians Today.)


“He never follows through,” the church member complained.


“What do you mean?” I asked.


“He’ll call and say he’s going to drop by the hospital, or check up on us later, or send us something, but he never does. I think that’s why we’re all wondering if we called the right pastor,” she replied.


I’m hearing more and more complaints like this about pastors from members of struggling churches. It’s not just griping about failing to follow through. It’s critiques that increasingly pastors aren’t doing the small things that make a big difference.


Pastors have similar laments: “The members don’t seem to like me or trust me.”


We’ll talk about the big factors that may be causing this—are their sermons relatable, are they empowering others, do they have a compelling vision, are they communicating well enough? But maybe a big problem is that pastors are so overwhelmed with big things that they’ve forgotten just how big a difference the small things make.


Over the past two years I’ve been collecting a list of small things I’ve noticed that struggling pastors and declining churches perhaps don’t pay enough attention to.


See if rethinking these may help you either as a pastor or a church:


Sunday welcome

What always stands out in all the churches I visit is how well a they welcome people. Do the greeters seem happy that I’m there, or do they just hand me a bulletin? Do any members notice me when I sit in a pew? How enthusiastically does the pastor greet the congregation? Sometimes it’s alarming how bad the welcome is.


A greeter in one church welcomed me by saying, “Here! Do you have a pencil? You’ll need one during the sermon.” That was it.


In a number of churches the pastor or a church member might read a formal, almost robotic, welcome from the pulpit. Nothing says, “I’m glad you’re here,” like a monotone, scripted welcome. Imagine doing that at home with guests.


Meanwhile, in healthy churches often the pastor or a member authentically says (with no script), “We are so glad you are here this morning. We are so grateful for everyone here. We hope you’ll stay around afterwards for coffee and get to know each other.”


For pastors, the most effective way to encourage a congregation to become welcoming isn’t to preach a sermon on welcoming others. It’s to train them to welcome others.


Pastor greeting

As pastors, how well do we greet people, either before or after worship? Are we too busy beforehand to say hi? After worship, when shaking hands, do we enthusiastically greet people?


I visited a church several months ago and watched the pastor do a wonderful job of walking around the sanctuary before worship, placing her hand on the shoulder of members while sharing warm conversations.


After worship she shook hands, said hi to each member by name, and really demonstrated that she cared.


Meanwhile, I recently visited another church where the pastor showed up ten minutes before worship, clinically and almost coldly shook hands afterwards, immediately went into his office, and left the church 20 minutes later.


Guess which church was struggling?


Pastor small talk

Many people who are attracted to ministry are introverts. They love studying theology and other disciplines. They love preaching. They love spending time alone in deeper thinking. The problem for introverts is that they are serving in a field that requires engagement and relationships — that requires extroversion as well.


In essence, pastors need to be ambiverts — people who are comfortable being both introverted and extroverted.


Many pastors hate engaging in small talk because they don’t know what to say. The secret to small talk is simply finding what interests people and listening and sharing. Once we’ve engaged them, the conversation builds a relationship, and that relationship helps them like and trust us.


Responding to e-mails and texts

This is so simple that it feels almost too simple to say. Still, a HUGE complaint is that pastors don’t respond quickly (or at all) to texts and emails. I have an 8-hour rule. I have to respond within at least 8 hours. Even if I don’t have an answer or need more time, I let them know when I’ll be able to get back to them. And then I follow the next suggestion…


Following through

Too often I hear members complain that a pastor will say, “I’ll be there,” or “I’ll call you,” or “I’ll get back to you,” and she or he doesn’t. I’ve been guilty of this myself way too many times. There are so many legitimate reasons why. But follow through anyway because it builds trust.


Coffee time

I’m amazed at how many churches clear out within 10 minutes of the end of a worship service. In declining churches, the skedaddle happens quickly. Enthusiastically inviting people to stay for coffee after worship is such a simple way to help people build relationships, as long as the pastor lingers for it. Emphasizing it week after week eventually gets people to stay. In congregations where people linger, relationships grow.


Communicating “I like you”

Again, this is so simple, but I’ve talked with members of many churches who think their pastor doesn’t like them. Why? The pastor doesn’t engage with them in a way that says, “I like you.” To me this may be THE most important thing a pastor can do, especially in a church where there’s some level of conflict.

Often churches go where the leaders go. If they leader doesn’t remind members that they are loved, the church may respond with a lack of love.


Sometimes it is the simplest things, the smallest things, that can have the biggest, most profound impact.


A pastor for 31 years, the Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, is now executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting, where he also runs their Caring for Clergy and Congregations Program. He is the author of 7 books on spirituality and congregational transformation, with a new one, “…And the Church Actually Changed,” due in Spring 2020 (



October 2019

Can We Be Missional if We Have Dirty Bathrooms?

by Graham Standish


Visit Graham's website and blog in Presbyterians Today. (This article was first published in Presbyterians Today.)

Over the past few months I’ve been working with a pastor enrolled in a missional church certificate program intended to transform his church.

He’s frustrated. He loves learning new ideas for ministry. He loves their energetic discussions about “walking” the surrounding community to figure out how to respond to the community’s needs. He loves how encouraging his teachers are. But he’s struggling with nagging questions: Have they ever pastored a church like mine, or are they mostly focused on new church developments? What happens if we address a community’s needs and they still don’t care? What happens if people show up and they discover that our church is old and out-of-touch?

I said to him, “True. If they aren’t attracted to your community, it won’t matter how much you walk their community.”

A church where people want to be I’m not trying to take a shot at the missional church movement. I’m suggesting a complementary tenet to what it teaches: We can’t be a church for others until we become a church where others want to be.

Wait, am I saying that our churches should become more like country clubs? I hate to break it to you, but most country clubs are better at community than we are. They grow precisely because they’re community centers where people meet to eat, talk, play games, create friendships, hold their weddings and funeral luncheons and celebrate holidays. Everything flows out of their sense of community. Is that true for our churches?

When I became Calvin Presbyterian Church’s pastor 23 years ago, they said they were a mission-oriented church. It was sort of true. They gave 18% of their $130,000 budget to mission, had done one or two work mission trips over 18 years, and were the phone line for Habitat for Humanity. Good job! But they had also formed the kind of tight-knit community typical of declining churches, becoming a community mainly for themselves rather than for those outside the church. And it showed. The church was in tragic disrepair with outdated décor, wrinkled carpets, dull lighting, peeling wallpaper and a 1960s vibe (not in a good way).

They had been taught by the previous pastor that spending money on church upkeep was selfish money. They needed to spend it on mission, not themselves. Unfortunately, by becoming a dilapidated, worn out place (much like a formerly glorious country club with threadbare carpets and sagging furniture) they stopped being a community that attracted others. One of my first tasks was changing the message: If you become a caring place that others want to be a part of, you’ll end up doing more mission than you ever dreamed of. And that’s what happened.

We cleaned, renovated and expanded, but even more we became a community for others. As we grew, our mission giving and activities expanded. By the time I left in 2017, we had quadrupled our mission giving. Even more, a significant number of members were active in all sorts of creative missions — from collecting bicycles for a Native American reservation, to helping Syrian war refugees build new lives in Canada, to helping maintain and staff Camp Westminster in Michigan with its mission to inner city children from Detroit. It all flowed out of our growing as a compassionate community for ourselves and others.

How can we create a community for others?

I have a theory about how to tell if our church is a community for others: Look at the condition of its bathrooms. They’ll reflect the condition of the church community. If the bathrooms are outdated, stained, smelly and neglected, the church probably has given into decline and now is a mostly closed community. If they’re cared for and clean, the community wants to be a place that cares for others and has confidence in itself. Your bathrooms tell others who you are.

Here are some other quick thoughts on building a church community that attracts others:

Try new ideas that create a new vibe. The more your church community tries things that seem creative —a talent show, an art show, a blessing of the animals, a Green Day (showing people how they can make their homes and the world more “green”), a game night — anything atypical and creative — the more people will want to try your church.

Offer childcare and children’s programming that’s clean, safe and fun staffed by childcare volunteers or staff who are well-trained, friendly, and competent, even if you don’t get many children on a regular basis. If you don’t have childcare and programming that young parents feel good about, they won’t trust your community.

Treat visitors the way you would welcome them into your own home. Train members to welcome visitors in a way that gently says you’re glad they’re there, that you want them to feel comfortable, that you’re available to answer questions, that lets them integrate at their own pace, and that welcomes them back. DON’T act like you’re desperate for them to like you.

Work on congregational cohesiveness. Nurture people to have healthy relationships, which means encouraging people to talk directly with each other and not behind each other’s backs; to be flexible and accommodating with each other; and to be compassionate with each other.

Create opportunities for people to get together in different contexts—dinners, prayer groups and vigils, classes, mission speakers, clean-up days, fun events, outings and so many more, even if it means more work for us. Make it hard for people not to connect outside of worship. A little secret: People don’t really connect during worship because they never get a chance to chat in worship.

Encourage people to become a church community for others, not just for themselves. Emphasize love, compassion, graciousness, generosity, kindness, and all the other attributes that lead to forging a healthy community that can then become healthy ministry and mission.

The key thing to remember is that if a congregation isn’t invested in creating a truly caring, compassionate community, it also won’t care enough to reach out in mission.

A pastor for 31 years, the Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, is now executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting, where he also runs their Caring for Clergy and Congregations Program. He is the author of 8 books on spirituality and congregational transformation ( Click HERE for information on Samaritan's services for pastors and churches.


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